FORT MEADE (AFP) The FBI subjected a member of the defence team for five alleged September 11 conspirators to a "chilling" interrogation in an effort to glean information, a military court heard Monday.
Defence attorneys told the hearing at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base that it hurt their efforts to represent their clients in the high-profile terrorism case.
The claim came on the first day of a week-long hearing to determine whether one of the alleged plotters, Ramzi Binalshibh, is competent to stand trial.
Jim Harrington, an attorney for the Yemeni defendant, said that a "member of my team, visited by two members of the FBI, had to sign and answer" questions by the agents.
"Saying this is a chilling experience obviously is a gross understatement," Harrington told the court in a hearing that was transmitted via a 40-second delayed feed to the Fort Meade military base just outside Washington, DC.
"The conflict arises: if we are the subject of any inquiry by the FBI, whose interest do we protect first, ours or our clients? That's the position the government has put us in."
Harrington said the interrogation happened at the beginning of April, and that the FBI agents effectively sought to have the member of the defence become "an informant" for the US government in the case.
Walter Ruiz, an attorney for another of the September 11 defendants, told the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, that the actions of the FBI represented an irreconcilable conflict for the defence attorneys, undermining "the priviledge and confidentiality of our work."
The chief prosecutor, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, told the court he had no knowledge of efforts to tap up the defence - the subject of an emergency motion filed late Sunday by lawyers for the five defendants.
The five are accused of helping organize the September 11, 2001 hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
The plot was allegedly hatched by self-proclaimed Pakistani mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most high-profile of the defendants.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if the men are found guilty.